Probability is the fundamental language for understanding uncertainty.
My research at the moment is dominated by what I call counter-terror operations research—evaluating the effectiveness of suicide bomber detector schemes, for example, or estimating the size of a terror threat on the basis of how busy your undercover agents are. This follows many years of working on HIV and AIDS, including methods for estimating the number of new infections, and in some ways there are commonalities. Both are variations on the problem of estimating the size of a hidden population. One difference is that terrorists don’t want to be found.
I teach probability in the Probability Modeling & Statistics class, which is part of the core curriculum. Probability is the fundamental language for understanding uncertainty. It is necessary for management decision making in a whole host of situations, because one has to make decisions without knowing everything, and one has to make decisions where the consequences are chancy.
I also teach an elective course called Policy Modeling. It develops very simple mathematical modeling approaches to different policy problems: issues in public health, housing, homeland security, and counter-terrorism. For example, there was a published report suggesting that the reason drug injectors who died of drug overdoses were less likely to be HIV-infected than other drug injectors was due to their different injecting behaviors—for example, needle sharing. I asked the students whether this explanation made sense, or if something much simpler was going on. After all, if a person dies of a drug overdose, she or he has a lot less time to become infected.
Some of my students have gone on to take staff positions in government agencies and other policy areas, but the typical student ends up working for a company, or in consulting, or at a nonprofit or NGO. I hear back from them often that they are using the methods from the class in setting problems up and asking clear questions.
Interviewed spring 2009.